A herd of Dall sheep graze on the side of one of the peaks in the Mystery Hills above the Skyline Trail in September 2017 near Cooper Landing, Alaska. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

A herd of Dall sheep graze on the side of one of the peaks in the Mystery Hills above the Skyline Trail in September 2017 near Cooper Landing, Alaska. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

Board of Game upholds restriction on sheep spotting by plane

Using an airplane to spot Dall sheep while hunting will stay illegal in the state for now.

The Board of Game on Tuesday reaffirmed its support for a controversial regulation that bans the use of planes to look for Dall sheep, which typically live in the rocky crags of mountains in the mountains of Southcentral and northern Alaska. The regulation, commonly referred to as Proposal 207, has been in place since March 2015 and has survived scrutiny at multiple meetings since.

The board defeated a proposal Tuesday that would have repealed the regulation entirely by a narrow 4-3 majority. The public was divided, with a number of advisory committees on both sides of the issue and public commenters both in writing and in person at the Board of Game’s meeting in Anchorage split on the proposal.

The proposer, John Frost, wrote in his proposal that the regulation causes crowding and safety issues as the Dall sheep season opens and that it is redundant to another federal regulation that already bans harassment of wildlife by airplane.

“I can personally say that it adds a layer of repressive regulation that makes sheep hunting less safe and less enjoyable for resident hunters who own aircraft,” he wrote.

Controversy over Proposal 207 was a factor in the founding of a hunters’ interest group, the Resident Hunters of Alaska. The group wrote in its comments to the Board of Game that its members strongly supported repealing the restrictions, in part because the proposal came from the board rather than the public.

“Not only did the Board of Game create a new regulation out of thin air, they did so even though the majority of Advisory Committees, the public, and our very own Alaska Wildlife Troopers, opposed Proposal 207,” the group wrote.

The concern behind Proposal 207 was that using airplanes gave some hunters an unfair advantage and that it led to crowding in sheep hunting areas, which are remote by nature. Many hunters fly in, land and hike to go hunting. Because of the high value of Dall sheep as a game animal, many people come from out-of-state to either hunt or guide for them. The original language of Proposal 207 noted that numerous Dall sheep hunters were increasingly complaining of conflict between hunters among user groups.

Board chair Ted Spraker voted against repealing the regulation, in part because of survey data requested by the board showing that only 14 percent of Alaskan hunters owned an airplane in 2014, so the prohibition of airplanes to spot hseep would help put residents and nonresidents on a level playing field.

“Right off the bat, it was clear to me that this proposal would really benefit residents,” he said. “Most of them probably use aircraft to access sheep areas, but they don’t have aircraft to fly around during the season unless they charter an airplane … that was one of the big issues that’s made me want to stay with keeping this one on the books.”

Board member Teresa Sager Albaugh of Tok supported repealing Proposal 207, saying the proposal caused public division and conflict with the board and was difficult for the Alaska Wildlife Troopers to enforce.

“I’m still troubled by (Proposal 207), because it was stated that it was based on perception,” she said. “It was, to my knowledge, the only outcome or item that was acted upon from the sheep (hunter) survey by the board even though other concerns were raised. … I think just assuming or making the statement that using your aircraft to spot sheep is really a very unfair statement and is only a value that’s held by some hunters.”

Board member Larry Van Daele joined her in supporting the repeal, saying he thought it was impossible to legislate hunter ethics and that he was concerned about pilots feeling fearful. If a pilot is distracted or concerned about how it looks to be circling for a place to land and may be reported by another hunter on the ground, it could cause a safety issue, he said. The proposal has also led to division in the public, which erodes trust in the board process, he said.

“It’s cause some degradation in the trust in this board,” he said. “… As hunters, as conservationists, we need to work together. That really hurts me when the board is perceived as being biased on something.”

Board vice-president Nate Turner disagreed, saying he didn’t buy the safety concern but understood that there had been unintended consequences of Proposal 207. The original proposal drafted by the board came in answer to the amount of public comment the members received during the 2015 cycle.

“The question comes up of what’s next, (and) how can it be fair for one species if it’s not applied to another?” he said. “In my view, the reason why we addressed this with Dall sheep is we had a tremendous amount of testimony about conflicts in the field … a lot of the comments were uninformed by the data that the board didn’t even have at that time.”

Board members also shot down a proposal that would have loosened the distance requirement for hunting coyotes with the use of an airplane. The proposer, the Upper Tanana/Fortymile Fish and Game Advisory Committee, asked for the board to remove coyotes from the restriction that currently requires hunters to land their aircraft and be at least 300 feet away before shooting, which applies for other animals like wolverine and arctic foxes. Although the Board of Game members agreed that there are plenty of coyotes and incentivizing harvest could help control the population, there are safety concerns and opportunity for coyote harvest already.

Turner noted that he was concerned about how the public would view the regulations if the board passed the proposal and that it would be relatively hard for a pilot to land close to coyotes, which are fast.

“The reality is that in my viewpoint, the pilot who was able to find that magical spot where the coyote is there and he can also land, they rarely come together,” he said. “The majority of the time he’s going to be up more than 300 feet from the coyote anyway when he lands.”

The Board of Game will continue its meeting Wednesday.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eliabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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